British comedian Paul Merton has followed in the footsteps of fellow TV personality Jonathan Ross in recent years with a number of fact-based programmes based around media and travel. But whereas Ross was more interested in trash and popular culture (the 'Incredibly Strange Film Show' anyone?) Merton has covered more mainstream cinema, albeit with an emphasis on comedy and the industry up to the advent of sound. Hard on the heels of Merton's well-received previous examination of silent comedians comes this bigger-budgeted three parter, 60 mins each part, in which he looks at the rise of cinema until the advent of the talkies. Special emphasis is made on the Fatty Arbuckle scandal in part 2 and the shaping of MGM by famed producer Irving Thalberg in part 3.
By and large the results can be considered a success, with some effective location shooting and Merton's pleasant non-intimidating screen personality helping to make fresh what, at least to cinema buffs, is mostly old news. Especially good is the dramatisations of some key events with actors looking remarkably like the original participants as well as the occasional surreal comment from the presenter.
Less convincing is the judgement in some instances. Merton, who clearly has an abiding love and respect for silent comedians seems less sure about other elements of film history and while his relation of facts is generally good, sometimes opinions are more questionable. Notable among these is the view of 'Intolerance', Griffith's famous post- 'Birth of a Nation' epic with its entwining story lines as 'tedious' and 'dull'. Everyone is entitled to an opinion of course, and all great films date to a certain extent, but Merton's demonstration of the effect of playing Wagner's Ride of the Valkyrie music over a comedy sequence as opposed to that from an epic IMHO merely proves the opposite to what he intends to show, viz. that music alone can transform any sequence - especially when, as in this case the effect, is somewhat absurd. In fact taken as a whole, the view of Griffith here is slightly dismissive.
Fortunately such simplistic moments are rare and for the most part Merton's enthusiasm and love for the subject come through. One or two interviews seems lifted, for obvious reasons, from the great series 'Hollywood' of a couple of decades back. A good series then, worth seeking out, entertaining throughout.
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